Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scaring Up Some Memorable Chills and Thrills

As Halloween unfolds, the film genre I admit to staying far away from is upon us, as explicit slasher movies of the Chainsaw (or Saw), Elm St and Friday the 13th variety invade theaters and DVD players across the country (the films in the clever, tongue-in-cheek Scream franchise are the only recent thrillers I can stomach). However, in regards to classic cinema, I do like a good scare now and then (I prefer then over now, so it doesn’t happen too often), and I’ve had opportunities over the years to partake of some of the exceptional classics of the suspense genre. Though less graphic than today’s epics of gore, these films offer moments of sheer terror that can leave a viewer more breathless than a pack of Camels.

My introduction to truly chilling cinema, which still constitutes the most frightening evening of my life, occurred one dark and stormy night when my unsuspecting mother, who never allowed me to view R-rated films, took me to a double feature of Freaks and the Robert Wise directed The Haunting. Mom must have thought these pre-ratings code films were okay for a ten-year-old to watch. I found Tod Browning's legendary 1932 Freaks, featuring a cast of real-life circus performers as the title characters, both creepy and fascinating, and was unnerved by the prologue to 1963’s Haunting, wherein the dark history of a mansion is recounted. I might have been able to get through both of these features without quite reaching my wit’s end, but the theater’s programmer included a cartoon short to ensure the evening’s entertainment would scare any hell completely out of me. I spent the next six or seven minutes glued to my seat in fascinated terror as the theater rolled out the 1953 classic UPA cartoon short The Tell-Tale Heart, based on the famous Edgar Allan Poe story. Brilliantly narrated by James Mason, this cartoon uses gifted artist Paul Julian’s unusual, terror-inducing imagery to illustrate Poe’s ode to insanity. For the next three decades this short stayed with me, as visualizations of Julian’s designs, accompanied by Mason’s nervous, desperate vocal deliveries, lingered strongly in the memory, especially the murder sequence, wherein the victim jumps up in bed and cries “No!” just before he’s attacked. I finally was brave enough to watch the film again as an adult, and the terror was undiminished. The British censors gave this Oscar-nominated short an “X” rating, due to the subject matter being too intense for children, but American children, including me, were on their own. Beware, kids.

1945’s Dead of Night, the British-made horror anthology that’s still the best of its kind, also places near the top of my list of moviedom’s best thrillers. Five tales of the macabre (although one of these is distinctly lighter in tone) are built around a framework involving a haunted man (excellently played by Mervyn Johns) who pays a visit to a house inhabited with strangers he’s sure he’s seen before. Outside of the uneven comic episode directed by Charles Crichton, the movie offers many suspenseful moments, including the eerie opening “Room For One More” story involving a man who witnesses a mysterious incident while recuperating from a race car accident, which later pays a huge dividend. Two further episodes also provide their share of shivers. However, the “scare” factor reaches sky-high proportions in the final Alberto Cavalcanti-directed sequence featuring Michael Redgrave’s intense and terrifyingly believable portrayal of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere, an emotionally-distraught character convinced his dummy, Hugo, has a mind of his own and is going to leave him (the eerie dummy looks menacing enough to accomplish this and much, much more, such as overtaking his master’s soul). I got chills just writing that last line, as remembrances of this unnerving story came to vivid life. Scenes such as Frere’s final meeting with Hugo and, later, a rival ventriloquist are creepy enough that even a distressed Freddy Kruger would bite his nails/blades completely down to the nub upon watching Night’s most disquieting passage. Due to the truly disturbing Redgrave segment and an equally-unsettling climax wherein Johns’ loses his sanity, I’ve only managed to watch Night a couple times as, although I tell myself “it’s only a movie,” the thought of watching this again (especially alone), is outweighed by the risk of incurring a heart attack via a Night viewing.

And finally, 1967's Wait Until Dark, starring Oscar-nominated Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman battling for her life in cat-and-mouse fashion with the diabolical Alan Arkin, contains one of the greatest jump-out-of-your-seats-screaming moments ever (the undersea "decomposed head roll" in Jaws is the only scene I can think of that comes close). If you've seen the film you'll know what I'm talking about; if not, guarantee yourself one true shock some Halloween by catching it. The actors are good, the situations tense and realistically depicted, and that classic fright moment is unforgettable.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bidding Adieu to Two Irreplaceable Talents

This week brought the passing of two formidable performers I’ve enjoyed watching and hearing throughout my life.

Deborah Kerr built an extraordinary list of film credits over an illustrious career, showcasing her remarkably adroit thespian skills throughout the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s via a wide array of memorable screen characterizations. Best known today for rolling in the movie’s most famous surf with Burt Lancaster and for dancing to a fare-thee-well with Yul Brynner, in addition to her career peaks in From Here to Eternity and The King and I Ms. Kerr’s considerable talents shined in many other starring roles. With equal effectiveness, she could play a mousy, emotionally unstable young woman (Separate Tables, wherein she has an incredible breakdown scene that, for me, surpasses anything else in the movie), a down-to-earth Australian wife and mother (The Sundowners), a nun possessing turbulent emotions under calm, proper exteriors (in both Black Narcissus and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), a compassionate "older woman" (as Laura Reynolds in 1956’s Tea and Sympathy, a role that also brought her great acclaim on Broadway), and an unbalanced- or is she?- governess (The Innocents, an unforgettable adaptation of Henry James’ "The Turn of the Screw," featuring Kerr in possibly the best performance of her career). Throughout her lengthy career, Kerr maintained her high level of performing excellence in inspiring fashion- if one looks up "professional actress" in the dictionary, there’s a good chance a picture of Kerr will accompany the definition.

Kerr fit the "Proper English Lady" roles she frequently played to a "T"; however, amid the conventions of the production code prevalent during her heyday, the beautiful Scotland native also managed to vividly convey a good deal of sensuality in many of her films. Kerr’s most famous vehicle for showcasing her sex appeal is, of course, Eternity, but as Black Narcissus’s Sister Clodagh, check out the way Kerr calmly but intently gazes at the hunky free spirit played by David Farrar, or listen to the erotic subtext she pulls off in not-so ladylike Anna’s one word response (a passionate "Yes") to Brynner’s suggestion they dance much closer in The King and I. And, um, let’s just say Kerr matched up very, very well with awesomely virile Robert Mitchum in Allison and The Sundowners. Kerr’s heroines nearly always found a way to stay in touch with their sexuality and this trait, along with her astute acting ability, helps lend a contemporary feel to most of her major roles. Try to think of another movie queen from 1940-1970 whose work has stood the test of time better, and you’ll be forgiven for drawing a blank.

Ms. Kerr picked up New York Film Critics Awards on three occasions (for 1947’s I See a Dark Stranger and Narcissus, 1957’s Allison, and 1960’s Sundowners), and a Golden Globe for The King and I (she won another Globe as 1958’s "World Film Favorite- Female"), but the six-time Oscar nominee never managed to take home a competitive Academy Award (Kerr received a well-deserved honorary award in 1994). The Oscar slight is a bigger mystery than anything her Miss Giddens witnesses in The Innocents, as Ms. Kerr proved time and again throughout her estimable career that talent like hers is as golden as it is rare.

I’ve been a fan of Teresa Brewer’s ever since discovering my mom’s old 78 of Brewer’s signature hit, 1950’s "Music!, Music!, Music!" as a child, feeling an immediate connection with the bubbly, down-to-earth young woman who charmingly demanded we "Put another nickel in!" Ms. Brewer’s distinctive vocal style placed her among the foremost recording artists of the 1950’s. Only 19 when she hit the big time with "Music!," Brewer had started developing her immense vocal abilities on radio at the age of two(!), and therefore was a polished professional when she achieved major success. Brewer’s skill as a singer was evident by her adaptability to many musical styles and genres: she could manage pop, country, and jazz with equal aplomb. Listening to her two biggest records, "Music!" and 1952’s "Till I Waltz Again With You" illustrate Brewer’s remarkable range. Shifting from the cheery, baby-doll voice she employs on "Music!," Brewer projects a mature, considerably passionate vocal delivery style for the ultra-romantic "Waltz." It’s hard to believe you’re listening to the same vocalist, let alone one who recorded the songs a scant two years apart.

Brewer would manage to effectively mix the up-tempo tunes with more subdued love songs, scoring hits into the Rock & Roll era with such records as "Ricochet," "Jilted," "A Tear Fell," "A Sweet Old-Fashioned Girl," and covers of "Let Me Go, Lover,’ and "You Send Me." After her recording career dropped off, Ms. Brewer continued to find success as a live performer for the next several decades, when she wasn't spending (self-imposed) time away from the spotlight as a wife and mother. Gifted with one of the most vibrant, memorable voices in popular music, Teresa Brewer had a knack for finding "the nicest part of any melody," and putting it over with originality, verve, and skill.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Montgomery Clift Provides a Huge Asset to The Heiress

I meant to come up with an entry sooner for Nathaniel’s current “Montgomery Clift” blogathon. Funny how, even with a couple months’ heads up, time managed to swiftly pass without me even typing one word in Clift’s favor. Although the date is late, I still feel compelled to attempt to put down a few coherent thoughts concerning one of the gifted actor’s peaks as a performer, and therefore one of my favorite performances ever.

Although I’m a sucker for Clift in just about any role (Oscars for The Search and From Here to Eternity would have been appropriate), I hold one portrayal in particular regard. Working in perfect collaboration with director William Wyler, Clift offers one of his most dexterous, intelligent performances in Wyler’ masterwork, 1949’s The Heiress. Aided by Wyler’s adroit direction, Clift’s skillful interpretation of Morris Townsend has left me in mystified admiration each time I view the film. Is it possible Morris is not just a villain seeking his fortune, but truly in love with the title character, Catherine Sloper (beautifully played by Oscar-winner Olivia de Havilland)? Due to Clift’s magnificently subtle playing, my sense of wonder surrounding his Heiress work has never abated, even though I’ve viewed the film many times. In Clift’s deft hands, Morris Townsend becomes one of the movies’ most complex, intriguing and impenetrable characters.

One expertly acted and directed moment illustrates the paradoxical nature Clift and Wyler were able to invest the character of Morris with. At the end of Morris’ first encounter with Catherine at a social gathering, Wyler moves the camera in for a close-up of Clift/Morris as he stands perfectly still in a doorway watching Catherine leave the party off camera, while the romantic strains of Aaron Copland’s score play on the soundtrack. This fade to black is shot and played in a manner that allows a viewer to interpret any number of emotions on Morris’s face: cunning, longing, compassion, greed, and love are all there for the taking, thanks to Clift and Wyler’s shrewd technique. The scene serves as a nice bookend with one of Morris' final moments, which also highlights the ambiguity that plays a central role in the character's psychological makeup. After Townsend has come back to Catherine and believes they are to be reunited, there's a moment wherein an unobserved Morris stands in the Sloper home and takes in his opulent surroundings. The calm smile of satisfaction on Clift's face as he glances around the room, hands in pockets, can be viewed both as an underhanded cheat's smirk of victory, or as an earnest look of happiness from a lover who's relieved he's finally returned to the place and person he loves most. Again, Wyler and Clift wisely leave it up to the viewer to decide what the character's motives are.

The true nature of Townsend’s character may lie somewhere between villain and lover. Mulling the performance over anew just before setting down to write this hosanna to Clift, a scene from a very different film came to mind. At the end of 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) offers this sage defense (directed at her wealthy intended’s disapproving father) after allegations she’s simply a gold-digger are directed at her: “Don’t you know a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You might not marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Twisting Lorelei’s argument around to fit the dynamics of The Heiress (“. . . A girl being rich is like a man being pretty . . . ”) casts some interesting light on both Morris and Catherine’s mindsets. Could Morris be pleased Catherine is immensely rich, yet also love her for the warmth, sensitivity and complete lack of guile Catherine displays towards him (at one point Morris states to Catherine, “That’s what I like about you- you’re so honest”)? Those tormented gasps of "Catherine!" as Morris desperately bangs on that locked door at the film’s astounding conclusion indicate a soulful attachment to Catherine does exist. Conversely, although Morris’ kindness to Catherine at the dance sets the tone for his relationship with her, she’s obviously also drawn in by her suitor’s charm, class, and Greek-God physical attributes. In the Heiress sequel of my dreams, Morris returns the following day to find an open door, and he and Catherine patch things up, both admitting their attraction to the other is based on several characteristics, which includes wealth on one side and beauty on the other.

In June of 2006, I attended what probably will turn out to be the highlight of my moving-going years. The LA Museum of Art featured a special showing of The Heiress, which included an appearance by Olivia de Havilland, who offered some wonderful insights concerning the making of the film (read more about that here). Just as enjoyable as the conversation with de Havilland was the opportunity to finally view the film with a large audience fully cognizant of the film’s status as a Hollywood classic. However, I was surprised by the audience’s reaction to Clift’s portrayal of Morris Townsend. Judging by the tsk-tsk’s and near-hisses that were directed at the character after Morris returns to Catherine late in the film, the audience clearly wasn’t buying into Morris’ rational concerning his abrupt departure from his fiancée’s life earlier in the film. Townsend explains he left Catherine because he didn’t want to be responsible for her losing her large fortune due to her father’s disowning her if she married Morris.

The dispassionate Mr. Sloper certainly makes clear his belief that no one could love Catherine except for her money, but must we buy into this harsh opinion of his daughter's merit? Witness the rain-soaked scene wherein Catherine makes it clear she must marry Morris without her father’s consent. As de Havilland delivers two key lines (“We must never ask him for anything or depend upon him for anything. We must be very happy, and expect nothing from him- ever”) Wyler shoots Clift’s costar in the foreground while she embraces him, thereby shielding Clift’s face from view. We only see Morris pull back slightly from Catherine after she finishes talking, while he utters a barely audible “No” (or is it “I know”?). Clift also keeps his face in a mask-like state after Catherine’s profession, and although actions like this may serve the viewpoint that Morris is a young man desirous of Catherine’s money, his (possibly) mortified reaction to her revelation also can be used to support Morris’ later claim he didn’t want to be the cause of Catherine losing her father’s inheritance.

If one accepts Morris only as an opportunistic cad, the character would have to be as good an actor as Clift while offering extremely heartfelt proclamations such as “Oh Catherine, you make me very happy . . . I’ll cherish you forever” after she accepts his proposal of marriage. Although Morris is revealed as a scoundrel in Henry James’ “Washington Square,” Clift and Wyler work hard to add shadings to Morris’ personality, and they succeed in giving many dimensions to the role that probably never existed in the character before Clift put his considerable stamp on the part. The young actor’s excellent work in The Heiress serves as a harbinger of the perceptive characterizations that would mark the majority of Clift’s role during his impressive heyday as a star during the 1950’s.

Although The Heiress is considered among the actor’s best films, when assessing Clift’s finest performances, Morris Townsend has been undervalued, and is normally not mentioned alongside his work as Matthew Garth, George Eastman and Robert Prewitt. However, in terms of both temperament and appearance it’s hard to image another actor fitting the part as well, and providing the same vulnerability and finesse Clift brings to the role. His Morris Townsend provides enduring evidence of Clift’s phenomenal talents, and illustrates why Clift was regarded as a Hollywood heavyweight during the first decade of his film career.

Thank you for running this blogathon, Nathaniel. Nice to have someone provide a means for some deserved exposure to Montgomery Clift, one of Hollywood’s most gifted, if tragic, figures.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

"Hooked on a Beauty" Video

Although I've had no blogging profile for awhile now, I was doing something related to my love of classic movies during the last couple of months. Here's the result:

I posted the video on YouTube over here, too. In both uploaded videos, the music is a little out of synch with the photos (I think the music and pictures are more in synch in the original movie I have on my computer). The uploaded versions are still fairly close to what I was going after- just not exactly right. I still had quite a bit of fun working on this, and I'm planning to make a "male version" (using Paul Newman, Clark Gable, etc.) following the same idea, but I'm not sure what song to use. I want something upbeat with a girl singer, and I'm leaning towards "I Will Follow Him," but I haven't decided for sure. Guess I'll start looking for pictures to use, and take it from there.

P.S. I went back and re-edited my blog video to add a photo of the great Deborah Kerr, who just passed away on October 16th. I had her in mind at one point while I was looking for pictures to use in the video, but somehow I managed to leave her out. Shame on me.